By Denis Villeneuve, one of my favorite directors, DUNE (2021) delivers a visually stunning adaptation of the Frank Herbert classic, though it struggles with its massive source material.
Confession: I liked the David Lynch adaptation a lot, at least until the last act turned into a rushed, jumbled, sometimes laugh out loud mess. I tried to watch the TV series adaptation but couldn’t sit through it. When I heard Villeneuve was bringing it to the big screen, my first thought was, does the world need this? Then I caught the trailer and thought, it just might. The new DUNE is like a love letter to science fiction film making as much as it a compelling and artistically made film, and it captures its own identity even as it feels familiar.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it follows Paul Atreides, a young man born into a powerful noble house that rules a planet in a galactic empire that is not unlike the Holy Roman Empire or maybe Westeros from GAME OF THRONES. When his house is called by the Emperor to rule Arrakis, a desert planet where spice is mined that is used by navigators for interstellar travel, it feels like a trap they have no choice but to enter. As things go bad, Paul, the product of centuries of specially woven bloodlines, is thrust toward a destiny he does not yet fully understand.
Visually, the film is stunning. It’s brooding, beautiful, and strange; I wish I’d seen it in a theater. The world these character inhabit is high-tech in some things but not in others, giving it an exotic mix of archaic and future that is compelling and doesn’t allow an easy technological fix to problems. Compared to the Lynch version, the story is far less psychedelic and appears stripped down to a level where it all feels Shakespearean. The characters are terrifically rendered, in no small part due to the incredible cast. Timothée Chalamet is like a male Kristen Stewart in that he’s rarely cast in roles demanding a lot of range, but he’s so awesome to watch brood in this that he pulls it off the way he did in THE KING. I liked how the Emperor doesn’t appear on screen, creating a sense of mystery; a lot of the film is like that, allowing my imagination to fill in missing details. The Harkonens aren’t clownish in this version but extremely menacing and brutal, making them perfect villains.
It wasn’t perfect for me, however. Some of the dialogue feels like a placeholder. I actually think Lynch handled the big attack in a more exciting and compelling way. After Villeneuve got past the attack, he ran into the same struggle Lynch did with connecting Paul with the local people. In the new DUNE, the last act sags and struggles and appears more focused on setting up the next film. Some old-fashioned tropes, such as the boy prophesied to the be “the one,” the natives leaning toward noble savage stereotypes, and so on haven’t particularly aged well.
But okay, that aside, I absolutely loved it, and I’m looking forward to the next film. More, please.